ISBN-13:978-1-84467-901-0. “Green Gone Wrong – Dispatches from the Front Lines of Eco-Capitalism” by Heather Rogers was published by Verso Books in 2010. Rogers is a journalist & author who has written for Mother Jones and New York Times Magazine. Her previous book was “Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage”. Those who are wishing for a right-wing polemic against the evils of environmentalism will need to look elsewhere; as will those hoping for some pleasant tree-hugging platitudes. This is neither. It should rightfully be called ‘The Market Gone Wrong – Dispatches from the Frontline of Eco-Consumerism’. It is closer to a Sunday supplement trawl through the challenges that face us rather than a Monbiot-inspired, full-on assault, on green-wash. But that is a good thing – and it leads to a discomforting conclusion…
The idea for this book came to the author as she was doing talks on her last book about rubbish. Audience members she spoke to in the USA, UK and Canada seemed to be clinging to the hope that simply changing what they consumed might be an adequate solution. Rogers (rightfully) was not convinced it was this straightforward:
“..this book arises from the belief that we have the capacity to find solutions that are not simply products to buy, but ways of engaging with how we live and what we want our world to be.”
The Sunday-supplemental style of journalistic writing pervades the book. Rogers certainly seems to be an outsider to environmentalism. This gives her a fresh if sometimes naïve-sounding perspective. Most of us who have been reading around this topic for years (and partly living the dream) will find sections of the book somewhat lightweight. She doesn’t readily take the system apart brick by brick to deconstruct its failings – more shakes it around a bit to see what drops out. But plenty does drop out…
The first six chapters take on a journey through “local organic farming” (“local” as in “local in the USA”, more likely somewhere near New York where Rogers hails from), large scale organic farming in South America, energy efficient housing in London and Germany, biodiesel plantations in Borneo, Detroit for an examination of the US car industry and, finally, rural India to scrutinise carbon offsetting. For a book that is 278 pages long it is noteworthy that these chapters constitute the first 179 pages. The remainder accommodates an “assessment”, “Notes on the Possible” and afterword. Some may find the final three sections the most original part of the book as Rogers takes an outsider’s view of what sort of solutions should be replacing eco-consumerism.
The first chapter on small-scale local organic farming observes only the problems facing the USA where they have their own set of issues with the gross inadequacy of their regulatory body. No doubt she would have written a different story if dealing with the Soil Association or similar bodies across Europe. However in general she correctly identifies the problems small scale producers face in trying to supply the mass markets via supermarket supply chains. This is a point also highlighted by Roger Scruton in “Green Philosophy” whereby food health regulations introduce overhead costs that force out the little guy. In fact health has little to do with it. Scale introduces cost efficiencies ruthlessly exploited by supermarkets. It is required to make food as cheap as possible. This means super-scale. The bigger the better. These BIG suppliers are very efficient at supplying dangerous food to lots of people – but big companies are better at filling out the paperwork for compliance. Until this mis-balance can be evened-out then the small player is facing an uphill task. But this is not “green gone wrong”. It is the market gone wrong.
In South and Central America pristine rainforest is cleared to produce organic sugar-cane. Although positioned in its own chapter this is simply the flip-side of the problems faced by “local organic”. You want organic? Yeah? You want it cheap? Yeah? OK let’s do it large. The larger the better – no matter the consequences. And those consequences are massive, but for the consumer in the USA it is out of sight and out of mind. We move quickly onto the eco-architecture of modern energy efficient homes courtesy of BedZed and Friebourg. Rogers spends a few days on a eco-home just to prove to herself that it is no hair-shirt existence. (It isn’t – she loves it.) She draws no particular conclusion about such homes: we should build them, lots of them, but what about our existing homes…? Then we find ourselves in Borneo finding out about the human rights & biodiversity costs associated with palm oil production.
So let’s accelerate onto the section on the automotive industry where the author finds herself impressed by the super-eco Ford Rouge truck-making plant where the water is recycled through parking lot wetland system. Impressive until Rogers points out that the production line inside the factory is churning out F-150 gas-guzzling SUVs for the US market. Complete disconnect. Why don’t American automotive manufacturers build small energy efficient cars? Because the margins are too small. Big trucks are profitable and the market has inadequate regulation to encourage them. Despite the massive success of the Toyota Prius the American truck builders are clinging to the wreckage of a dying paradigm. Surely Capitalism at its worst asks Rogers? The boss of Chrysler sets her straight:
“…it’s not up to the Chryslers of the world to forge greenhouse gas busting breakthroughs. “That’s for the entrepreneurs to do […] …and when they’ve got something really good, we’ll come in and either buy that product from them or buy their company.” “
It is enough to make you cringe isn’t it? So much for the American Dream. The big US motor companies clearly revel in their mediocrity and the public money that stops them from going bankrupt. All the time the Toyotas of this world are waiting to steal their markets. History will bury them.
So let us move rapidly on again to carbon offsets. Nothing could be quite so controversial. Environmentalists hate the concept although it is economically and logically sound. Cutting the first few units of carbon is not only cheap – it pays for itself – then the costs rise exponentially as you reach what economists call “diminishing returns”. So in a world of finite capital why have this money chasing expensive carbon savings when there are lots of cheap savings to be made elsewhere? Much pseudo-religious nonsense about buying forgiveness for “carbon sins” hides an effective mechanism. The problem is in the detail. As one Indian solar panel entrepreneur succinctly puts it:
“Good things could be happening with this money, it’s not that I’m opposed to companies paying to help subsidise renewable energy, it’s just that it’s not being used that way. It’s criminal.”
It is really hard to make carbon offsetting work because the temptation and opportunity to cheat is over-whelming. Rogers quickly finds examples of a dysfunctional bio-energy power station and photovoltaics that only get used in emergencies. It is a target rich environment. However the really interesting conclusion to Rogers’ investigation in India is the revelation that carbon-offset funding could be distorting the market and preventing the uptake of renewable energy. Everyone in Bangalore has a solar hot water system on the roof. These were not paid for with carbon credits. It was done because it works and beats the competition. In truth I didn’t quite follow the author’s logic as to why the carbon-offset cash would lead to less renewables but there is a very good point here: we should be driving down the cost of non-fossil-fuel alternatives in a targeted approach to the general economics instead of just throwing money at a thousand hard-to-verify grass-roots programs. The carbon-credit system is just another financial instrument for the market money-makers to fiddle with as Rome burns.
Rogers then moves on to her “assessment” which is a chapter that summarises the conclusions from the previous six chapters. Her conclusion? She found lots of solutions that work….
“But, instead, political and corporate leaders, and some in the environmental establishment, are putting aside what works in exchange for what poses the least challenge to established power structures.”
Indeed. It is window-dressing. It remains economically rational to rape and pillage the planet with a “green” label slapped across the process. But nothing fundamentally changes. Rogers is unimpressed, indeed, she is angry:
“Most of the projects I saw in researching this book were born out of letting the market take the lead in solving ecological crisis, and they aren’t working. Waiting to implement solutions to global warming and other major environmental troubles until these technologies and systems are profitable enough is reckless and bizarre in the extreme.”
The market is failing because of our fascination with it. It cannot do everything. So Rogers continues her musings through her “Notes on the Possible” but it isn’t until the Afterword that she trawls the literature to find alternatives to the market and eco-consumerism. Stunningly she omits Transition (maybe as a result of the time in which the book was written and its US-centric position) but she does investigate several avenues. Taking a socio-ecological approach she writes, requires…
“…greater engagement… Getting involved isn’t nearly as accessible as buying something at the store.”
Yup, sounds like Transition to me. Rogers looks at steady-state economics, participatory economics, environmental accounting, eco-socialism and so on. Yet she finds them all wanting somehow. She exposes each to the acid test of would it fit her “real world”? Well, no, none do. You would need considerable imagination to do that and it is a criticism we have long held on to: where is the road-map from here to there? What about basic human nature?
“It strikes me that the models I am reading about don’t account for complex social forces. They assume that most people will be won over and stay on side. Just as neoclassical economists suffer from basing their analyses on ‘perfect markets’, many alternative economists succumb to idealising their own models. Participation can take many forms – it might mean enthusiasm and dedication. But it might mean resistance.”
This one passage alone is worth the price of the book. It is this that must be the starting point of any Transition. If you aren’t taking everyone with you then there is no point in going. She goes on
“…I want to take what works from all we have. And I don’t want to be correct. No economic system can be implemented and maintained through piousness or be entirely utilitarian. History makes this clear.”
Utopian visions of how things can be are painted as if they will exist without struggle. Roger’s conclusion? No system is perfect, but we do need to reshape our priorities. This future will “be shaped by a myriad of forces”.
This is not always a very entertaining book. It is a compilation of various journalistic pieces separated by space and time, bolted together with three attempts to bring it together with a conclusion that makes sense. In the end you conclude that the world is crazy and nothing much makes sense. But that is a good starting point. To know what works you must know what fails. And move on. Rogers’ work is worth it for the final ‘afterword’ in which she finally grapples, as a lay-woman, with the enormity of the challenge of sustainability. There are no simple answers – but we have no option but to try – all of us.
Amen to that.